Chef Peter Merriman's signature restaurant - Merriman's in Waimea, HI - may have been the first place in Hawaii to address the concept of Hawaiian Regional Cuisine. When it opened in 1988, Merriman concept was to use home-grown, organic foods found on the islands, along with grass-fed beef from the ranches around Waimea, and to incorporate only the freshest caught fish into his daily menu. For over 20 years, Merriman's has been popular with tourists and locals alike seeking the finest in Hawaiian Regional Cuisine - a cuisine that didn't really exist 25 years ago.
For years and years, the term "Hawaiian food" meant the stuff tourists got a traditional lu'au - kalua pork, lomilomi salmon (grilled salmon with onions and tomatoes), chicken lu'au (chicken with spinach, onion and garlic), and, of course, poi, which is basically the paste from pounded taro roots. When Merriman arrived in 1983 to be the chef at the Mauna Lani Resort, he found the island had a bountiful harvest of food to choose from. He found ultra sweet corn that was grown by farmers on the east side of the Big Island, there were coconut trees near the hotel that he would climb to get coconuts for a special coconut sauce he used on fish, and he began a relationship with a number of organic farmers and growers on the island.
Merriman and his wife, Vicki, opened Merriman's with the idea of fusing all these great home-grown foods into a menu that showed off the best of what Hawaii had to offer. In the meantime, he used his relationship with the ranchers, farmers and fishermen to ask them to try different types of things to grow and catch. This led to different types of fruits and vegetables, as well as interesting and new species of fresh fish to show up on his menu. Merriman's suddenly became a gourmet heaven with the burgeoning "foodie" population.
After our lunch at Merriman's Market Cafe, not far from our hotel, I did a little research into Merriman's place in Waimea. As I said in my earlier post on his cafe in the Kings' Shops shopping center in Waikoloa Beach, Merriman also has a handful of other restaurants that he's involved in, including a Merriman's on both Maui and on the island of Kauai. It sounded like the Merriman's on Maui was an exquisitely upscale restaurant from some of the things we were reading about. But the one in Waimea could be described as upscale casual. On our last night on the Big Island we decided to go to Waimea for a good dinner at Merriman's.
I had a pair of shorts and a Hawaiian shirt on that evening, Cindy had a nice top and chinos when we went out. It was warm when we left the hotel, temps were in the upper 70's, but we knew up in Waimea it would be cold and rainy. It was. The temperature dropped 20 degrees and there was a light rain by the time we pulled into the restaurants parking lot on the west end of town (see map).
The decor of Merriman's is contemporary Hawaiian - it has a high ceiling with narrow wood beams across the room. There was subdued lighting along the edges of the ceiling, with dimly lit chandeliers hanging toward the middle of the room - bright enough to allow you to easily read the menu. Small palm trees in large pots were interspersed in the dining room that sat about 80 people. The tables and booths along the walls were all adorned with heavy linen table cloths. It was a nice place to say the least.
It was about 7:30 when we got there and there was one table open - a large six-seater near the open kitchen and the small bar area. Actually, I can't even really call it a bar as much as it was a station where the bartender mixed drinks and put them on a five foot long pick-up bar. The hostess took us to the table and while it was large for two people. It was either that, or the hostess said it would be about a 20 minute wait for a regular table. Cindy thought it would be fine, so we sat there and she gave us the menus for that evening.
We were told that Peter Merriman doesn't work all that much at the restaurant any longer, he's running the small empire of restaurants from his home on Maui. The executive chef of Merriman's in Waimea is Neil Murphy (right) who has a long resume of working in fine restaurants before he joined the Merriman's staff. Prior to coming to Hawaii to be the chef at Merriman's, Murphy worked at a number of high-end New York City restaurants including Aureole and Symphony Cafe. He was the chef de cuisine at the famed Park Avenue Cafe for eight years before coming to the Big Island.
Our waitress - wait a minute - *waiter* for the evening came out to great us. Her name was Robyn and she was a short blond, 20-something gal who grew up in Alaska. As we found out later on, Robyn had a degree in forestry, but decided to come to Hawaii to just bum around for awhile a few years ago. One thing led to another and she ended up as a waiter at Merriman's. All the waiters - both men and women - are called just that. Each was dressed snappy in black trousers covered with heavy aprons, white button down shirts with ties. In fact, each of them were given the title of "Professional Waiter", as it showed on the business card Robyn gave me before we left that evening. I'd never had a waiter or waitress give me a business card before.
I looked thorough the impressive wine list Merriman's had to offer. Robyn said apologized about the shortness of wine list - the book was ten pages. "I know our wine list isn't as extensive as other places," she said. "But we have a great sommelier here and he can give you some recommendations on some of the wine."
I told her, "I don't think that would be necessary, but you shouldn't sell this wine list short. Compared to some other fine restaurants I've been to, this is pretty impressive." Since we were in the middle of ranching country on the Big Island, I figured I get a steak that evening. Cindy was, no doubt, going to get seafood, but she said she wanted to go with a red wine for the evening. I ended up picking out the Castillo Labistada Rioja Reserva, a 2001 varietal from Spain. Actually, the prices on their wine list were pretty reasonable. A 2005 Jordan Cabernet was $99 bucks - I've paid up to $120 for that on the mainland. They also had a Whitehall Lane 2005 cab for $89. But the Castillo Rioja was a little over-priced at $64 bucks. But I like a good Rioja and the Rioja Reservas are aged for three years in oak barrels compared to just one year for regular riojas.
The menu at Merriman's is eclectic, to say the least. While there's not a lot to choose on it, there's a lot of diverse and interesting items to choose from. As I said, Merriman's features grass-fed Hawaiian-raised beef, fresh fish from the ocean, and organically homegrown, and when possible - chemical free - vegetables and fruits. They have an interesting list of appetizers including a kalua pig and sweet Hawaiian onion quesadilla; macadamia encrusted grilled shrimp; and their house cured smoked bacon served with sweet bread French toast with a Kona coffee barbecue sauce. How wild is that!
For dinner, as I said, I was looking for some grass-fed beef and they had a few things to offer including a filet; a bone-in New York strip with Szechuan pepper sauce and herb butter, and their version of Steak Diane with sauteed Hamakua mushrooms. Man, it all sounded good.
Cindy, of course, was looking at their seafood offerings which included Merriman's original wok charred Ahi tuna - charred on the outside, but rare inside. I almost jumped at that, honestly. They also had a prepared Ono fish, as well as a ponzu (a fruity sauce found primarily in Japanese cuisine) marinated mahi mahi that was sauteed with sesame seasoned shiitake mushrooms, hearts of palm and sweet Maui onions. That sounded great, too.
What I should have done is ordered Merriman's Mixed Plate - a small tenderloin medallion with the mahi mahi and the ahi tuna. But Cindy beat me to it. I was sort of surprised that she went with that as she had been disdaining beef all week long during our first few days on the Big Island. But Robyn said, "Oh, you'll like that."
Cindy smiled and said, "Oh, I know!"
What I ended up getting was the large (12 oz) grass-fed beef tenderloin filet with a tomato, sweet onion and beet chutney on the side. However, before that I ordered Merriman's tomato salad with fresh basil, blue cheese, anchovy, capers, lime and olive oil. As good as the tomatoes were on the burger I had previously at Merriman's Market Cafe, I could only imagine how good this salad would be.
I said, "Cindy, that has mushrooms with the fish."
She said, "That's OK, I'll just put 'em off to the side and let you have them."
For her starter, Cindy got the Hawaiian grown lettuce salad with Maui sweet onions in a house-made balsamic vinaigrette. She thought about getting the Caesar salad, but opted to go with the basic salad instead.
And just as I hoped it would be, the tomato salad was out of this world. I don't know if it's the soil on top of volcanic rock or the long growing season or what, but Hawaiian tomatoes were absolutely the best I've ever had. I grow some pretty good tasting tomatoes back home, but these were just unbelievable in their taste. They didn't have that overly acidic taste that some tomatoes can have. They're almost sweet and very juicy. If the state agriculture department didn't scan bags and suitcases for vegetables and fruits, I would have smuggled home a dozen or so. Along with the fresh anchovies, blue cheese and the fresh basil - which is grown outside of Merriman's in their own herb garden - it was a taste explosion in my mouth. It was just unbelievable.
Robyn and another waiter brought out our main entrees later in the evening, setting them in front of us at the same time. I had ordered my filet rare and it was a little over-cooked. Actually, it would have been a little over-cooked as a medium-rare. But it was tender and juicy. Grass-fed beef doesn't have the same taste as the corn-fed beef I'm accustomed to back in Iowa. But as Cindy pointed out, they probably aren't injecting the cows on steroids or whatever out in Hawaii. Still, it was pretty good.
However, Cindy's mahi mahi, wok charred ahi and the filet medallion was "the bomb". She gave me little bites of the fish and it was just heavenly. She said, "Honey, this is just unbelievable. I'm so spoiled on fish here in Hawaii I don't know how I'm going to be able to eat fish when we get back home."
The Castillo Rioja Reserva was a great complement to the meal. I love a good Rioja and the Castillo was a pleasant surprise. It wasn't overpowering or bold, but had a nice finish that lingered for a moment. It went well with the seafood, as well.
As we finished up our meal, Robyn came around to see if we wanted dessert. When she talked about the passion fruit mousse, I asked, "Is that the same thing as lilikoi?"
She said, "Passion fruit is from the same family as lilikoi, very similar, but not as tart."
We were sort of full from dinner, but I decided to give the passion fruit mousse a try. Shortbread macadamia nut cookies came on the side. I was sort of "eh" when it came to macadamia nuts before I got to Hawaii. However, we found some in a can - the Mauna Loa brand of macadamia nuts - and I was hooked. But, oh! Macadamia nuts are so rich! I could only eat a handful before my stomach would say, "Whoa, hang on there!" (We brought four cases of six cans of the Mauna Loa brand macadamia nuts back home with us.)
The passion fruit mousse was light and not as tart as the lilikoi as she said. It was very good. And the shortbread macadamia cookies were killer. I said, "Cindy, we need to find the recipe for these cookies." (We did - see it here. We haven't made them yet, but I want to wait for a special occasion.)
The crowd had filtered out by the time we were finishing up, so that afforded Robyn some time to visit with us. She asked how dinner was and I told her that we've had some outstanding meals with great service on our visit to the Big Island and this was no exception. I said, "My steak was a little over-cooked, however."
She said, "Well, why didn't you say something? I would have gotten you a new steak."
I told her it was more medium-rare-medium than rare-medium as I usually like my steaks. "It was no big deal," I said. "I wasn't going to quibble over meat temperature tonight." She apologized again and said, "Well, next time you guys come back, I'll give you free desserts." (What is it with these places giving out free desserts? I know tourism is down in Hawaii, but that was the second high end restaurant that offered to pick up our dessert if we came back.)
Robyn took out her card, put "Free desserts w/purchase of entrees" on the back of it and handed it to me. "If someday you ever make it back to the Big Island, please do stop in and see us again."
Yes, if we ever do make it out to the Big Island again, we will stop at Merriman's. It was expensive, but we have a tendency to splurge on vacation. I don't know if it was the finest meal we had while on the Big Island, but it was very, very good.